The Great Debaters
Directed by Denzel Washington
Harpo Films, the Weinstein Company, and Marshall Production, 2007
Pablo Picasso once observed that the person who breaks new artistic ground doesn’t have to do it well—s/he just has to do it. Those who come after can improve it.
But with The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington (and others including, of all people, Oprah Winfrey) have broken new ground—and done it pretty well.
Serious dramas primarily about African-Americans are still a Hollywood rarity, with the vast majority of mainstream movies still about white people. Every year, a few slapstick comedies about African-Americans are released, marketed to African-Americans, and rarely reviewed in the major media. But films that the industry takes seriously are about whites, and when they involve people of color, it’s in relation to whites. Even Spike Lee, the country’s most prolific and honored Black director, has put white people at the center of almost half his feature films.
Halle Berry made history in 2002 as the first Black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar; minutes later, Washington became the second Black Best Actor. But Berry won for her portrayal of a Black woman with a white lover in Monster’s Ball, and Washington for his performance as a corrupt cop with a white partner in Training Day. Not until 2005, when Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for the Ray Charles biopic Ray, did a Black actor win an Oscar for a performance in a movie that was actually about African-American life. No movie about Black people has ever been named Best Picture.
If serious dramas about African-Americans remain rare, serious dramas about African-American activists are rarer still. (There was Lee’s Malcolm—and what else?) And a serious drama about a possibly Communist African-American and another who grows up to become a Civil Rights Movement leader? Inconceivable! Yet Winfrey as producer and Washington as director have conceived it, realized it, and done a creditable job.
In many ways, The Great Debaters is straight out of the inspirational/based-on-a-true-story mold: the account of a teacher who bullies, cajoles, and otherwise motivates initially unpromising students to a championship. Where it departs from standard Hollywood fare is in the details of race, politics, and, to a slightly lesser extent, intellectual content.
The teacher, Melvin Tolson (Washington), is Black; the students are Black athletes of the mind, not the body—the debating team of Wiley College, an all-Black school in Marshall, Texas, in 1935; the championship is the first-ever victory of a U.S. Black debate team over a white one, and not just any white team, but Harvard’s. One star of the Harvard debate is Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the first woman to debate for any Black college, the other is the precocious 15-year-old son (Denzel Whitaker) of an erudite teacher at the college (Forest Whitaker, referred to as “Dr. Farmer”—the son is called Junior). And in one final, huge deviation from the norm, Tolson has an extracurricular activity that may be unique in recent films: In his off hours, he organizes Texas sharecroppers, white and Black, for an unnamed union.
Most of it really happened. Melvin B. Tolson did coach the Wiley debating team in 1935, and did lead it to victory (over the University of Southern California, not Harvard, and there was no woman on the team at the time). The (very) young James Farmer Jr. was on the debating team—and did grow up to be a World War II conscientious objector and then co-founder of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. And Melvin Tolson almost certainly organized sharecroppers. (He was also a distinguished poet and was named Poet Laureate of Liberia in later years, biographical details omitted from the movie.)
The Great Debaters is derivative and synthetic in everything except its extraordinary story; and, in his second directorial effort, Washington tells this story very well. It has genuinely heart-stopping and heart-wrenching moments, including a scene of a lynching that Tolson and his students stumble on one night, barely escaping with their lives. Washington turns in a stellar performance as the intense, charismatic professor-activist, alternately charming his charges and demanding that they confront—and challenge—the brutal realities of Black life in 1930s Texas. Under his leadership, the two younger debaters acquire stirring eloquence. Jurnee Smollett is fiery when she declares, “The time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always…right now!” And young Denzel Whitaker (apparently no relation either to Washington or to Forest Whitaker) is prophetic when he says, in the Harvard debate—on the subject of civil disobedience—“It is not just a right, but a duty to resist the unjust law through violence or by civil disobedience…and you all better pray we choose the latter.”
But as rare as it is to see a movie that so vividly engages Black U.S. history (and mentions civil disobedience, Gandhi, and Thoreau), it’s what the producers, including Oprah Winfrey, allowed Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele to do with Tolson’s organizing activities that shows courage. It’s a fact that most of the groups organizing sharecroppers in the south in the ’30s were communist- and socialist- dominated. When Tolson’s secret work is exposed, he is asked, repeatedly, whether he is a Communist. “I think that’s my business,” he answers—not an entirely credible response, since in that place and time it could easily have gotten him lynched. But for Washington et al. to let their Black hero look red besides—in Hollywood, that’s brave.
Activist-journalist and writer Judith Mahoney Pasternak has written about popular culture for Pacifica radio station WBAI, The Guardian Newsweekly, and other media. She was editor of the magazine of the War Resisters League for 10 years and now sits on the WRL national board.